You know, they're all special snowflakes. Hard to decide which one is going to give you that special root canal of a lifetime.
A shout out to Southwest that still managed to podium despite its best efforts to blow itself up at year-end.
The Best and Worst Airlines of 2022
No one airline had a particularly good year. Blame staffing shortages, aggressive scheduling, bad weather and big crowds.
Best and Worst Airlines of 2022: The Effect of the Southwest Mess
It was a turbulent year for carriers in 2022. But Southwest’s holiday meltdown stands out. So how much did the cancellations, lost bags and complaints affect the company’s place in WSJ’s annual airline rankings?
By Dawn Gilbertson and Allison Pohle, WSJ
Jan. 18, 2023 5:30 am ET
Chaos. Bedlam. A nightmare.
Frustrated fliers spared no superlatives when describing the mess that unfolded in 2022 as travelers returned in full force.
Delta Air Lines Chief Executive Ed Bastian, speaking on his airline’s earnings call last week, described 2022 as “the most difficult operational year in our history.”
This from the airline that gave travelers the fewest fits in 2022. Delta ranked first among nine U.S. carriers in The Wall Street Journal’s 15th annual airline scorecard for the second consecutive year and fifth of the past six. Alaska Airlines was a repeat runner-up, followed by Southwest Airlines. (Yes, despite its year-end meltdown. More on that later.)
*Includes regional affiliate and international flights ; †12 months ended October; ‡12 months ended September
Sources: Anuvu provided full-year 2022 data for on-time arrivals, canceled flights and extreme delays (greater than 45 minutes). U.S Transportation Department provided data on tarmac delays, mishandled baggage, consumer complaints and involuntary bumping.
JetBlue Airways finished last for the second consecutive year, a notch below budget-minded Frontier Airlines and two spots behind merger partner Spirit Airlines.
Yet even the top airlines did worse than in previous years, a fact that may have many travelers nodding in agreement. Airlines are ranked by seven equally weighted metrics covering flight cancellations, on-time arrivals, delays, involuntary bumping, baggage handling and complaints.
You didn’t have to be a frequent flier to run into travel troubles in 2022. The year was bookended by holiday travel woes, with a messy summer-vacation season and hurricane headwinds in between.
The reasons for the industry’s problems are well documented, if little comfort to travelers. Fuller flight schedules to meet a surge in travel demand collided with staffing shortages and training backlogs. Air-traffic control issues multiplied. Extreme weather spread throughout the country.
Delta retained its crown by navigating the hurdles better than peers, but was far from perfect. The airline took the top spot in three of the seven categories, down from five in 2021.
Its on-time arrival rate of 81.7% beat all competitors, but was still down from 87.9% in 2021 and 83.4% in 2019, the industry’s last normal year.
The airline that for years has pledged to “cancel cancellations” canceled nearly 31,000 flights, more than three times the number it called off in 2021, according to aviation data company Anuvu. Delta and its regional airline partners canceled nearly 2% of their scheduled flights, versus 0.6% in 2021 and 0.7% in 2019. Granted, this means almost all fliers got where they were going, but it’s still a trend no airline wants to continue.
“That is not what we expected. That is not what we’re looking for,” says John Laughter, Delta’s operations chief.
Mr. Laughter says Delta, like other airlines, aggressively rebuilt its flight network after pandemic cutbacks. The airline moved quickly to pare its schedule to a more manageable level, among other steps. The moves gave Delta a second half that was “substantially better” than the first half of the year, Mr. Laughter says.
“We certainly had unprecedented challenges and [Delta employees] responded well,” he says.
Delta still had the lowest cancellation rate among major carriers excluding Hawaiian Airlines, which isn’t included in our rankings due to its focus on Hawaii and the operating buffer the tropical weather provides. Seattle-based Alaska would have edged Delta in this category were it not for the storms that socked the Pacific Northwest in late December, according to Anuvu data.
Flight cancellations were the big story for airline passengers in 2022. The number of cancellations by major U.S. carriers soared 69% in 2022, far outpacing the 13% increase in scheduled flights. The average cancellation rate of the major carriers was 2.6%, up from 1.8% in both 2021 and 2019.
Cancellations fell in the second half of the year as airlines got their act together. Nearly 60% of the cancellations occurred between January and June.
Allegiant Air, the carrier that shuttles vacationers from smaller cities to holiday spots like Las Vegas, Florida and Arizona, canceled 4.3% of its flights, the most of any airline. It also had the lowest on-time arrival rate, at 62.7%. Allegiant finished last in both categories in 2021, too, but this year’s numbers were worse.
Allegiant spokeswoman Sonya Padgett said in a statement that the airline was hurt by a “confluence of factors” in the first half of 2022, including extreme weather, Covid infections and staffing shortages. The operation began to stabilize in the second half of the year, she said.
“Though some of these causes were outside of our control, we are determined to better serve our customers and return to the high performance levels we maintained prepandemic,” the statement said.
Allegiant ranked fifth overall, helped by its top showing in baggage handling and involuntary bumping.
JetBlue earned the title no airline wants—worst performing U.S. carrier—because it posted relatively poor numbers in nearly every category. On the bright side, it posted the fourth-best showing on bumped passengers in the 12-month period ended Sept. 30, behind Allegiant, Delta and United. (The Journal’s rankings use the most recent 12 months of data available for tarmac delays, involuntary bumping, mishandled baggage and complaints, which don’t include the full 2022 calendar year.)
The New York-based airline, praised by passengers for its in-flight amenities including free Wi-Fi, DirecTV and trendy snacks, had the highest rate of extreme delays and two-hour-plus tarmac delays. Its on-time arrival rate was second-to-last, at 63.6%. JetBlue canceled 3.3% of its scheduled flights, better than only Allegiant.
JetBlue was plagued by the same issues other airlines faced in the first half of the year, and like them it cut its roster of future flights to compensate.
JetBlue President Joanna Geraghty blames much of the airline’s continuing operational issues on its heavy concentration of flights in metro New York and surrounding Northeastern states. Three out of four of the airline’s flights are in that ultra-congested region. No other airline comes close to that exposure, she says.
The airline is taking several steps to improve its operation, including extra focus on limiting cancellations even during times of flight issues outside its control, Ms. Geraghty says. JetBlue shaved its cancellation rate in the second half of the year to 1.9% from 4.7% in the first half.
“We are largely a leisure carrier, and we know customers want to get where they booked their [vacation] flight for,” she says. “So that’s where we double down.”
Southwest Airlines, third in the rankings, couldn’t have scripted a worse ending to 2022.
The airline canceled more than 16,000 flights during a costly Christmas meltdown that stranded passengers and their bags, sometimes for days. The airline doled out 25,000 frequent-flier points to nearly two million passengers as a gesture of goodwill and is in the process of reimbursing passengers for alternate flights and other expenses.
The airline canceled 3.2% of its scheduled flights, more than any airline except Allegiant and JetBlue, and a full point higher than in 2021.
Southwest, which had knocked Delta out of the No. 1 spot in 2020, held its ranking from 2021 on the strength of its relatively low rates of complaints, lengthy tarmac delays and mishandled bags.
The results come with a big asterisk. Baggage handling and complaint data for December 2022 won’t be available for a couple of months and won’t factor into our rankings until next year. (Southwest had a mini-meltdown in October 2021—the impact of that factors into this year’s rankings.)
A Southwest spokesman said in a statement that this year’s scorecard shows the airline’s success in rebounding from the impact of the Omicron variant in early 2022 and setting its operation up to handle a record number of summer travelers.
That’s in the rearview, of course. The airline says it has work to do to get its operation on track this year.
Passengers on every airline can only hope for a smoother 2023.
Write to Dawn Gilbertson at email@example.com and Allison Pohle at firstname.lastname@example.org